A classic tale of teenage angst in Franc Roddam’s 1979 film ‘Quadrophenia’
“We tried not to age, but time had its rage.”—Pete Townshend
Director Franc Roddam’s debut feature film, loosely based on the eponymous 1973 rock opera by The Who, is a compelling portrait of a volatile period in British history as well as an intimate account of teenage angst. Roddam launches an honest investigation of the counter-culture movements of the ‘60s, focusing on the conflicts between two specific sub-cultures: the Mods and the Rockers. In the midst of it all is our protagonist, Jimmy (played by Phil Daniels). He is a mailroom boy who escapes the monotony of his life by zooming around on his scooter (the chosen vehicle for Mods), dancing at parties and ingesting copious amounts of amphetamines.
Supplemented by an amazing soundtrack with songs by The Who themselves, Quadrophenia is a brilliant coming-of-age film which raises some important questions about individual identity and the emptiness of the protests against an inevitable sense of ennui. Jimmy dresses like his gang, listens to the same songs and plasters his wall with newspaper clippings and pictures of his idols: from Pete Townshend to lingerie models. He tells his Rocker friend Kevin:
I don’t want to be the same as everybody else. That’s why I am a Mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t you? Or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.
Jimmy does not realise the fatal fallacy of his statement until the very end. In an attempt to escape the claustrophobic labyrinth of socially constructed identities, he clings to his counter-culture idols and the false ideal of a superficially meaningful gang war. The countless altercations between the Mods and the Rockers caused a moral panic in the preceding conservative generation, most evident in the scenes with Jimmy’s parents. His father tells him that schizophrenia is his genetic legacy and that he does not even know who he is. The film’s title is a variation of the term “schizophrenia” as an allusion to the four distinct personalities of Jimmy (each based on a member of The Who). There is a subtle reference to this interesting phenomenon in the film itself: the scene where Jimmy is trying to fix his scooter and we see four separate reflections in the four side-mirrors.
Despite being surrounded by friends and girls, Jimmy often finds himself in a perpetual state of loneliness. His primary love interest, Steph (played by Leslie Ash), is never actually into him and he escapes from one disillusionment only to reach another. The grand delusions of being a rockstar or a “somebody” are always relegated to the realm of fantasy. Locked in a world of symbols and images, Jimmy cannot reconcile the mediocrity of his existence with his vaulting ambitions. His posters, his scooter adorned with mirrors and his workplace (an advertising agency) are illusory signifiers of a terrible unreality.
The only moment of significance which provides Jimmy with a semblance of subjectivity arrives when he makes it to Brighton with his gang after robbing a large supply of amphetamines from a chemist. He finally hits it off with Steph, meets his Mod idol Ace Face and participates in a riot which he considers to be a cultural movement. The Mods and the Rockers engage in an all-out war on the beach while the police intervene. Roddam shows us scenes of complete chaos, alternating between shots of visceral violence and Jimmy having sex with Steph in an alleyway. The result is a powerful exposition of the hypocritical dichotomy of teenage ideals, almost like a subversion of the already-subversive opening sequence from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.
However, the events that follow pierce Jimmy’s ephemeral feeling of invincibility. He gets arrested while his friends run away, he gets tired of his dead-end job and quits, spending all his severance money on amphetamines and he gets kicked out of his house because his mother finds out about his drug habits. Steph starts dating his friend and he even loses his beloved scooter in an accident with a van. Struggling with an intense sense of loss, he decides to double down on his Mod identity and hops on a train to Brighton but nothing is the same anymore. The alleyway is deserted and ordinary now, prompting him to say “Fuck it!” to Steph, love and everything else. Jimmy’s face light up when he recognizes Ace’s flashy scooter only to see him as a subservient bellboy at a hotel. This is Jimmy’s final breaking point.
He steals the coveted scooter and rides it along a cliff facing the sea while contemplating suicide. In a fit of unabashed outrage and frustration, he drives the scooter off the cliff and we see it being battered against rocks. Roddam leaves us with a poetic ending, signifying the death of flawed identities and teenage idealism. I’ve Had Enough by The Who plays in the background:
“I’ve had enough of dancehalls I’ve had enough of pills I’ve had enough of streetfights I’ve seen my share of kills I’m finished with the fashions And acting like I’m tough I’m bored with hate and passion I’ve had enough of trying to love.”